1. The Children's Museum of Indianapolis
- Fills 365,000 square feet of gallery space -- the largest in our survey -- with 14 major exhibits, such as "Bones: An Exhibit Inside You," where children can build a skeleton, shop for calcium-rich foods, and walk through a giant model of a bone enhanced with fiber optics.
- Displays more than 10,000 artifacts (just one-tenth of its collection), including a 55-ton steam engine, a working 1927 carousel, and a 33-foot-tall waterclock, the largest in North America.
- Boasts 36% of employees with degrees in early childhood education.
- Holds classes and camps, featuring circus and space themes, in its 185-acre nature preserve.
- Offers a 130-seat planetarium with programs that teach kids how to identify stars, planets, and other highlights of the solar system from their own backyard.
- Best for ages: 4 to 12
The Children's Museum of Indianapolis has its fair share of dinosaur memorabilia -- a life-size replica of Tyrannosaurus rex, the museum's mascot, greets kids at the entrance to the six-story building and the "What If" gallery features a fossil dig. "But the kids -- toddlers to teens -- told us they wanted more," says Jeff Patchen, Ph.D., chief executive officer of the 75-year-old museum. "So when we had the chance last year to buy the third most complete T. rex fossil in the world, we jumped at it."
The fossil, a juvenile dinosaur named Bucky, will be one of the centerpieces of the museum's $25 million, 8,000-square-foot "Dinosphere: Now You're in Their World" exhibit, which is under construction. Featuring misty ponds, a wide variety of greenery, and a state-of-the-art sound system to pipe in noises from the period, the exhibit will immerse kids in the Cretaceous era of 65 million years ago.
A lab, where kids can work side-by-side with scientists to prepare Bucky and additional fossils for display, opened a few months ago. "Many history museums would simply display the dinosaur with a little card about its origin," points out Dr. Patchen. "Instead, we're striving to create an extraordinary learning experience that has the power to transform the lives of children and their families."
- Contact: 800-208-5437; www.ChildrensMuseum.org. Entrance fee: $8 for adults, $3.50 for kids.